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Why university may not be best course to take

By Fionola Meredith

Published 14/08/2015

Students celebrate A level results day
Students celebrate A level results day

The last years of school can feel like a high-speed express train hurtling along the tracks with one final destination: university. Yesterday the A-level results were released and students across Northern Ireland found out if they'd made the grade for the place they want to go. If not, it may mean a lengthy wait on the platform before wearily reboarding next year and beginning the journey all over again. But here's an idea. Why not get off the train altogether?

When I started my undergraduate degree at Queen's in the early 1990s only a quarter of local 18-year-olds went to university, whether here or further afield. Now it's closer to half, though it's fallen a bit since the introduction of tuition fees. But I'm not convinced that all of these young people should be there, both for their own sakes and the sake of our higher education institutions.

The current emphasis is on inclusion, relevance and accessibility, which brings more and more students through the university doors. That's fine if they have sufficient wit and pluck and imagination, as well as the necessary personal and financial commitment to make a success of their degree.

But it seems to me that there are too many young people attending university not because they actively chose it, or because they have an appetite or an aptitude for learning, but because they drifted there in a sort of unthinking herd, perhaps propelled by their parents or their school. And there they stay for three years, accruing debt, before emerging with a mediocre degree and beginning the soul-sapping process of finding a job.

The real duffers will get kicked out after first year, I suppose, though my perception is that you have to screw up pretty spectacularly to get the terminal boot. There's a lot more nursing and indulging and jollying along of students than there was in the past.

The fostering of a rigorous independence of mind has, in too many cases, been replaced by a form of infantilised spoon-feeding, where all the knowledge is reduced to mush so that it goes down easily and your tutor is on hand to mop away any stray drips. Dumbing Down isn't an actual course on any undergraduate syllabus yet, but it can only be a matter of time.

Expectations are already dramatically lowered, and that means that standards fall, too. The really important thing appears to be not that students should be stretched, or challenged, or encouraged to pursue excellence, but that they should feel good about themselves.

Since the introduction of fees this also becomes a commercial imperative: if I'm paying you for a service, in this case a university education, I want it served exactly the way I like it. Well, you got it.

Need proof that standards are slipping? UK figures for 2013 show that 68% of students left university with the highest possible results: a first-class degree, or a 2:1. They also reveal that the proportion of graduates achieving first-class honours almost doubled over the course of a decade.

In 2013 an additional 8,020 people received a first-class degree compared to the year before. Please don't ask me to believe that students are magically getting smarter.

The truth is that many school-leavers would be far better off (both in the sense of being happier, and perhaps ultimately richer, too) with good vocational and skills training. What happened, for instance, to decent apprenticeships? The UK has only 11 apprentices per 1,000 employees compared to 39 in Australia, 40 in Germany and 43 in Switzerland.

If we're talking money, a report by the think-tank Demos estimated that increasing the numbers of apprentices to similar levels would improve Britain's GDP by £4bn a year.

According to Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust, real apprenticeships are as important to social mobility as good university degrees. "Instead of a clear system of respected vocational routes, we suffer from a complicated patchwork where too many young people are offered qualifications of little worth in a system that confuses employers and is not valued as it should be by society," he said.

In the absence of realistic alternatives, it seems unlikely that the stampede along the so-called "golden route" of A-levels and then university will abate any time soon.

But it comes at a price, not just to the ill-suited individual but to the institutions themselves. Excellence and inclusion are not mutually exclusive if they're held in balance, but if one starts trumping the other then it's time to pull the emergency cord.

Belfast Telegraph

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